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Your organization was one of the key non-profit stakeholders in the Woodward’s project. Can you give us a snapshot of that process?

Well, first off there were a lot of very strong feelings about Woodward’s in the Downtown Eastside community and a lot of very high emotions around what it meant to people who are homeless and poor. Most of us involved wanted to make sure that there was a lot of social housing. Ideally we would have liked 100% of it to be social housing. So it was a very complicated and intense project.

Then Ian came along and it was pretty astonishing to find someone who was as prepared as he was to actually make the effort that the project required. This speaks to his tenacity as a person, as it meant really listening to the people of the Downtown Eastside and allowing them to occupy his headspace when he had never been in that place before. To actually think about the issues – whether it was trying to figure out how to put in a daycare that made sense for the neighbourhood; or how to work with SFU to please that organization; or make sure that the communal space was relevant, open and assessable to everybody.

Was there an emphasis also placed on design?

Yes, especially in terms of getting the social housing submission to a very high standard, actually way higher than we were expecting. Ian put a lot of love into the design of that social housing. He went over and above for sure, by putting extra features and special touches into it and I am sure he went over and above what we were funded for. The communal space is very nice and the units are spacious. It’s good.

Also he made sure that the grocery store which was to be on site wasn’t a high end one that people in the community couldn’t afford and listened to feedback about what sorts of incentives they needed to have in place to make people who were low income feel welcome. Ian took it all on and in the end, it didn’t help him commercially but it did accomplish the job.

What would motivate Westbank to take on Woodward’s?

I don’t really know what was in it for them other than the challenge. I think Ian’s a nice person and I do think he cares but I don’t think he necessarily got into it only to fix the social problem. He likes things that are complex and he likes to be stimulated and this was a huge challenge for them to take on. He’s more than just creative, I think he likes to be stimulated by complex problems and challenges and he likes to solve them. The Westbank team all worked very hard. None of them are slackers.

What’s Woodward’s like today?

The people we have who live there absolutely love it. They think they’ve died and gone to heaven. You can’t find more beautiful, long term social housing. Do I think the entire development is working? I think the people on the site feel quite welcome. They shop there and they use the atrium. They get free tickets to the theatre and there are communal dinners. I don’t see any problems.

The jury is still out on Woodward’s but from my perspective the people who live there are extremely happy and it’s been an incredible resource for social housing on that site. Now of course, I wish there was more social housing. I think in terms of trying to fix the problem of what we can do there and actually make it work, I think it has been a success.

Looking back, were there any surprises?

The Woodward’s project was surprisingly positive. There’s always apprehension working with developers because you don’t really know what their agenda is going to be or whether or not they’re going to really care enough about the objectives that you’re trying to achieve to make it real.

I can happily say that Ian surprised me lots of times in terms of how much he really did care and how much he really did hear what was important and how willing and able he was to integrate our ideas and submissions into the development.